Writing the Five Senses: Smell

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!

Today, we’ll be focusing on smell. I’ve selected excerpts from the works of fellow bloggers (with their permission) to show examples of each sense used effectively, as well as excerpts from my novel-in-the-works (with my permission) to show examples of my attempts to use each sense effectively. Buckle up for some sensory stimulation, grab a cold glass of Cherry Coke, and enjoy!

Smell:

Mr. Krabs was wise when he said, “Do you smell it? That smell. A kind of smelly smell. The smelly smell that smells… smelly.” Indeed, a smell has the potential to make an impression, whether that impression be positive or negative. Given that storytelling is a reflection of life, smell has weight in writing, too. Drumming up a particular scent in the reader’s mind can add richness to the reading experience. Let’s take a look at a few ways in which writers can weave smells into their writing.

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Using nuanced smell to convey information:

To start, let’s take a look at this striking passage written by fellow blogger M.L.S. Weech from the first chapter of his book, Caught.

“You’re a wasted birth!” she said in her sharp, nasally voice. “A child I should have known better than to bring into this world.”

Her hand raised to his head, and a small whine escaped Caden’s lips as she used bony fingers to yank him toward her by his mop of red hair. He fought for a moment, but at that time, his mother was much stronger than he was. Fighting only caused him to fall screaming. She simply dragged him by his hair through his door and then down the hall. He slid from the smooth, pine-scented floor onto the white carpet of the hallway. His pajama bottoms rolled down, allowing the carpet to burn into him as he slid along its rough surface. Streaks of blood stained the white fibrous floor.

Did you catch the brilliance conveyed by a single description of scent? Here we have a horrid scene in which Caden’s mother is dragging him across the floor, drawing blood and screams. The woman clearly has no love for her son, and yet…“he slid from the smooth, pine-scented floor onto the white carpet of the hallway.” The floor is clean! The floor is freshly cleaned, as Weech indicates by the detail of “pine-scented floor.” From this detail, the reader can infer that the mother cares for her home more than she cares for her son, enhancing the horror of Caden’s predicament. Perhaps this isn’t the case, but the implication embedded within the detail is provocative.

Weech uses a nuanced detail to both stimulate the reader’s senses and to reveal significant information. Note how Weech bolsters the detail about smell with other sensory descriptions. Details are best when one weaves them into the fabric of the passage as opposed to stitching them atop an already-cohesive section.

Using smell to set the scene:

Sometimes a single smell can frame a setting. If Spongebob Squarepants was novelized, the chapter where Spongebob and Patrick dumpster dive could begin with a description of the dumpster’s sour smell. Such a description would convey the foul nature of the ordeal and bring the reader closer to the protagonists. I’ve pulled an example of setting the scene using smell from my novel-in-the-works.

It was a wonder the press house wasn’t on fire. Every man had a pipe in his mouth, and matches were struck as often as machines whined. A thick haze of smoke clung to the air and buried the place in a sooty smell. The sharp odor of burning tobacco was not foreign to Clarence—he smoked on occasion—but the dense cloud festering in the press house was overwhelming even for him. Baking heat summoned sweat from his pores and slicked his skin enough that his clothes stuck to his body. Clarence was suffocating on ashen air, but he couldn’t leave. He had only just arrived.

When interlaced with visual, auditory, and sensory descriptions, the olfactory details of “sooty smelland the “sharp odor of burning tobacco” help to develop the scene at hand. From this point forward, the reader understands that this press house smells like smoke. A reader might imply a smoky smell by the description of lit pipes alone, but specificity can embellish the scene further. It’s important to note that it’s often far too glaring to write, “The room smelled like x.” This is why I built a bridge between the “sharp odor of burning tobacco” and Clarence, the one who is doing the smelling. His connection to the smell manifests through the detail of his smoking habit. This way, the olfactory description doesn’t stick out like a poor note emitted through Squidward’s clarinet.

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Using smell to appeal to the stomach:

This one is just plain fun. I love food. Intimately. For me, food in writing ought to be regarded as holy. Neglecting to thoroughly describe what a character is eating is sacrilegious as far as I’m concerned (This is yet another reason as to why I love reading Robert Jordan). The act of eating food is one that involves every sense, but smell is among the most important. After all, you can’t taste if you can’t smell. Check out this bit from my novel-in-the-works.

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Because the kitchen door never halted its pendulate motion, smells of cooking flooded the common area enough that the acerbic spice of perfume faded to nothing. Joshua practically swooned when the airy aroma of baked bread touched his nostrils. Along the tendrils of golden scent wafting from the kitchen came the intoxicating smell of cooking meat. Joshua looked to Shoushan, none at all surprised at the sight of his eyes widening in a way he found impressive for a Chinaman.

That was a blast to write, and I hope that it’s a blast to read, too! Don’t neglect food. Instead, seize the opportunity and assert its place on the page! Smell is a key component of food, so do be mindful of that. Writing food is a holy task, remember?!

Final Point: One can enhance the reader’s sensory experience by tapping into the sense of smell through the use of nuanced olfactory details, by setting the scene with descriptions of smell, and by embellishing food through describing its smell.

What do you think? Did any of these methods/examples strike you as effective? Fellow writers, how do you go about stimulating a reader’s sense of smell? I love hearing from you!

As always, stay classy.

~J.J Azar

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33 thoughts on “Writing the Five Senses: Smell

  1. Jazz

    Great post, J.J! Your writing always impresses me in the way you describe everything! I love when you share bits and pieces of your upcoming novel! Awesome post , as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Using smell as a qualifier is something that hadn’t occurred to me. If I write an updated post on this topic, I will be sure to include that! Thank you for the insight!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great! Smell and taste are the two senses I see neglected most frequently in fiction (probably because they’re the ones we most neglect ourselves). I’m glad to see you put this one first, because smell is actually super closely connected to memory so is really important for writers not to forget. Fun sidenote/something to try: I had a fantastic writing professor in college who one class asked us each to bring in one of our favorite foods that had some kind of special meaning. Then, we each smelled/tasted the foods our peers had brought in and wrote little pieces on them. It was a great way to bond with the writers in our critique groups and also a good way to kind of think more about smell/taste in our work. This kind of reminded me of that a little 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Aimee! You’re 100% right about smell being closely connected to memory. The activity your professor had your class participate in sounds like a great reminder of that! Thank you so much for stopping by and contributing! Rumor has it that an excerpt of yours is making an appearance in the next post…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love that you have tackled smell! I think it is one of the few senses I fail to really associate with reading (unless we are talking book sniffing 😉 ). Yet is is so powerful and effective! Great choice and post. I will be paying a bit more attention to how scent and smells are utilized in my future reads for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A.S. Akkalon

    Thanks for tackling this topic! I try to use smell in my writing, though it’s often a challenge.

    When I read books, I find descriptions of smells work best when they capture in a few words a smell that is familiar and evocative for me. This means that analogy becomes really important when the writer is describing a setting the reader is unlikely to have experienced. It also suggests a book can be experienced very differently by people who come to it with a different background and set of experiences. So… challenging!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Challenging indeed! As I’m sure you can tell from the excerpts I posted, my description tends to be wordy as opposed to expressed “in a few words.” Even still, I see the merit in brevity for sure! You’re right, it’s about indicating a scent which helps the reader to connect with a setting!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. First, I really appreciate the shout out! I’m a huge fan of this series. I think all description is best in tandem with action. Each beat of action, when coupled with a beat of description, creates a more visceral world for the reader in my opinion. The more senses one can activate, the more effective a segment of description will be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Featuring an excerpt from your work was my pleasure! And I agree with your take on senses and descriptions, Matt. They should never interrupt. Instead they should always be interwoven with the narrative.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Writing the Five Senses: Touch – J.J. Azar

  7. Fantastic post, sir. Glad to see this feature back in action. I was totaaaaallly looking forward to read about the ultimate smell&food combo. You gotta make us hungry through your words! Otherwise, you just lost a good star or two to your 5 star story!! 😀

    Like

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